Re thoughts on medicine in fantasy vs. history

Ven vendersleighc at
Sun Nov 21 10:10:10 EST 2004

Jadwiga appealed

<ok, so I'm scheduled to be one of the presenters
of a talk on 'Medicine
in history and fantasy' at DarkoverCon.

Pushing aside my own ideas for a moment, I
figured I'd ask people for 
their thoughts on the subject. Yeah, I know it's
a wide topic. But there 
it is. From Lucy's diamond cordial in Narnia to
the stock figure of the 
'local herb witch' in fantasy... The medievaloid
fantasy seems to be 
predicated on old feminist medical history with
mental powers added in, 
generally. But can you think of good examples of
'people think it's like 
history but it's fantasy?'

(sorry if I am incoherent and/or rambling...)>

This is an interesting topic, so I'll ramble on a
bit myself. To start with there is the rather
awful view of bad medieval medicine which
contrasts with the enlightened ways of the
fantasy practioners. According to this, medieval
medicine was superstitious, ignorant, squalid and
positively harmful. It's practioners used
disgusting and or toxic substances like dead mice
and mercury, they relied on mumbo jumbo charms
and curses, swore by blood letting and, of course
had no idea of hygiene.  On the other hand there
also existed wise women, and occasionally men,
who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of herbs,
which they kept in pretty cottage gardens or
harvested whilst tripping winsomely about in the
forest (sorry that last bit IS fantasy, why don't
they ever collect herbs from windswept heaths, or
sand dunes, or the edges of cornfields?). They
actually knew more about herbs than we do today,
as well as knowing everything we do know about
them, so they use willow bark for asprin, fox
glove to treat heart disease and so on and never
ever got the doses wrong, misdiagnosed the
disease, or failed to apply a sort of instinctive
knowledge of the importance of cleanliness. This
latter type of practitioner is very common in
fantasyland with the addition of using charms
that actually work and having invented herbs to
supplement the real ones whenever somebody
suffers some ailment for which there is no known
herbal cure. Some of these learn they're trade as
village apprentices but the more sophisticated go
to colleges and get called Healers. Healers seem
to use magic more along with telepathy and
massage. (I seem to be channelling the tough
Guide here, don't I?). 

The real history is somewhat betwixt and between,
of course. People of the time were applying
common sense along with a body of knowledge mixed
with some misapprehension. A good source for the
herbs and magic kind of medicine is Keith Thomas,
Religion and the Decline of Magic. Irrc he
suggests that the "charms" (often biblical
verses) which the patients had to recite served
as an aide memoire and regulatory device --
ensuring that they did change their dressings or
take their medicines as directed -- much as we
consult the little label that says two to three
times a day after meals. 

There are fantasy physicians too, and if good,
they invariably have the aversion to bloodletting
meme too (that's probably how you can tell them
from evil doctors and charlatans in fact). Most
of the ones I have come across seem better
researched and use realistic instruments. Guy
Gavriel Kay does a good line in these.

I have a friend, Chris Felton, who is working up
a barber surgeon persona for medieval
reenactment. He was recently featured on Tony
Robinson's Worst Jobs in History Series, showing
off the his collection of gruesome implements for
the giving of medieval enemas and the like. If
you have any enquiries about that sort of thing I
could pass them on. 


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